Thursday, 21 February 2013

Commercial Radio. How it might have been.


Robin Day adjusted his bow tie and wheezed.

Across a black and white TV studio, the Swingometer nudged a touch into the red in the dark hours of night. His sweaty Conservative front-bencher guest shifted uncomfortably in his leathern seat as the UK prepared to wake up to another Labour morning.

It was March 1966. Good old Harold had called a quick General Election to fix his small majority. Young Ted Heath had barely sailed his way around the Opposition leadership. He lost. Labour was returned to Number 10.

What might have happened had the swing been the other way? It could so easily have been.

A fresh Conservative government would have quietly been just as eager to sideline the pirate chappies broadcasting from the North Sea, as the 70s were to prove. It would, though, have been more sympathetic to the prospect of legitimate commercial radio.  And less at ease with the prospect of the BBC spreading its wings at all, let alone into pop and local radio.  History suggests that BBC Local Radio's eventual arrival turned out to be touch and go: it dawned,  thanks in no small part to the persuasive case from the great Frank Gillard. And Auntie's foray into pop music radio certainly had its critics within and outwith its own camp.

A smug, new 1966 Conservative Culture Secretary who smiled to camera as he walked across Downing Street in that March sunshine would have had a number of exciting ideas in his head.  What would he do with the huge swathe of unused FM spectrum?  Although FM radios were few and far between, the likelihood was that they would catch on.  Maybe an F-Love ad campaign or something similar might have helped.  So, nothing to be lost.  Give the private sector a bash. Charge them for spectrum usage and see what happens. 

Local or national? Well, there was no proven track record of local radio; and, we know for sure, plenty of voices suggesting that it would amount to but "triviality and mediocrity...even if the parish pump could be kept gurgling...it would have no listeners" (The Times, Feb 1962).  So, to get maybe a little more Treasury trove for that spectrum than maybe the 2013 Government got for 4G, probably a few national radio licences would have been prepared for the rubber stamp.


Roll on February 1967.  Test transmissions crackle through the ether for the new national commercial Radio Elizabeth.

It wouldn’t have been very good. 

History suggests that some early commercial blood clearly understood competitive format radio, programming slick stations some way ahead of their time. Other early commercial operators were more comfortable with stentorian Lost Dog radio.  The record shows that many led the charge against, not for, large regional and national commercial stations. 

Ironically, the eventual architect of BBC Radio 1, Robin Scott, would probably have made a decent fist of programming the commercial Radio Elizabeth in 1967, had he sat in the PD chair with his pile of ¼ inch tapes of the pirate Radio London.  'Stand-by for switching.  Radio Elizabeth. Go!"  He would have been wisely complemented by one of the more rational and commercially-astute pirate chaps in the office next door as Sales Director/MD; and a miserable FD to remind him not to hire every single DJ off the pirate ships.  And Tony Blackburn would still have been first on.  Woof woof. 

Its audience success, however, would probably have depended just how free the regulatory codes were.  Would these foolscap pages have permitted a national station which sounded like an early brash and colourful Trent or Beacon; or would the regulator have insisted on something more akin to a nascent, more reserved Hallam or BRMB?  One imagines a brave Tory Culture Secretary would have been less inclined to deposit radio’s regulatory duties down Brompton Road  with the IBA; and invent a new, more liberal radio regulator.  Not least because the latter might be more likely to offer him some Brits tickets, so he could take his mistress to see the Rolling Stones.

It would have sorted itself out.  As would the next commercial national.  They would have been sold on a few times; and settled. No station would have been made to do speech, so TalkSPORT would never have been born. Similarly, the management of Radio Elizabeth would not have been inclined to nod through an Xcel spreadsheet about a format change to Classical music.
 
Seeing the glint of cash, the regulator would have shoved the police messages off 105-108 MHz by the end of the 60s, and made way for a limited network of local commercial radio in major cities.  

Then, as the 1966 Tory Government was pushed aside in a hasty 1970 Election, the BBC would be able to make headway and persuade an excited re-elected Harold Wilson that BBC Local Radio was the only way communities of under 300,000 were going to get a local radio service at all.

Where would we be by 2013?  Brand-led national commercial radio would be a generation ahead of where it is now; and advertisers would have been able to grasp the medium and buy it with ease.  Without Radio 1, commercial radio would be delivering the lion’s share of listening and a share of advertising a few % ahead of where it now sits.  Brand integration would never have been banned, let alone un-banned.  Powerful national pop-brands would be complemented by successful and proud big-city radio; and the BBC would be better-funded to do more of exactly what it does best in top quality speech, smaller markets, minority formats, and older demographics.

As it has turned out, we are wisely engineering much of the above backwards, with some necessary pain along the way, probably to a slightly less satisfactory conclusion.  We’ve had little choice.  The last 40 years have been a tough journey with huge frustrations.  Its idiosyncrasies though have provided a fund of some truly great memories and rich learnings.  Radio will never be quite like it again.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Pip pip peeep.



The Pips signal the start of so many great moments in radio. A pause amidst the energy. A grave announcement. A simple sound amongst the complex. Silence separated.

Before the advent of the Pips, a pianist would mark the time on the radio by playing the notes of the Big Ben chimes; or they'd merrily bang a set of tubular bells. What a gig that must have been. 


The Pips sounded their familiar B notes six times for the first time on the evening of February the 5th 1924.  It wasn't a truly fresh idea: Marconi's research department had mooted the move on the day the BBC was born.  Their eventual arrival followed a touch of lobbying from the then Astronomer Royal, Derbyshire's Sir Frank Watson Dyson, and the prospect was greeted enthusiastically by DG, John Reith, who was not averse to a bit of precision. John was, in any case, presumably buoyed by the introduction of the Big Ben chimes earlier in the year.  Frank duly sorted out some mechanical clocks in the Royal Greenwich Observatory after chatting it over with the chap who invented the pendulum clock. Handy to have friends like that. Two clocks were used, in case one broke down. Belt and braces. It’s the unique way they’re funded. Mind you, they only cost twenty quid each.  

On the first evening, the Astronomer Royal himself jocked up to the pips, presumably to a puzzled public.  The sound was conveyed to Broadcasting House by telephone line.  The clever thing was (and your engineers can explain this. Probably at length): they turned the sound inside out, so the pips were actually gaps in the constant 1kHz tone. So, if the line went down between pipping time, the piercing constant noise would cease. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t there until, well, until it wasn’t there. 

The equipment, now governed by an electronic clock, later moved to the magnetic observatory at Abinger in  Surrey, before clocking off for a move to Herstmonceux Castle in 1957.

The final pip had been the same length as the others, but as a flared-trousered Britain toasted the start of 1972, they 
lengthened it, just so you knew it really was the last one. Counting pips was not the answer, owing to those genuine occasions where time catching up with itself demanded an extra pip. I’d love to see the ‘beware - there are 7 pips tomorrow‘ memo. Bet there was one.

In 1990, exactly on their anniversary, the BBC moved to making its own pips.  Maybe one day it will be an independent production again.  I’ll pitch.  They're now based on signals from the GPS network and from the 60 kHz radio transmitter at Rugby.

A bored Noel Edmonds used to cheer himself up whilst on the Radio 1 breakfast show, by playing with the pips, and ensuring that such play ended just in time to hit the vocal.  On this medley of tribute audio though, you’ll hear him indulge a little more.  Enjoy too an unfortunate pips-related Radio 4 clanger (beware- offensive word) where continuity announcer, Peter Jefferson, made all too clear his displeasure at tripping over his words (language alert); and then a piece of delicious Eddie Mair who converted his own pip mishap into a piece to fill a convenient gap later in PM.

Despite delayed Digital Radio signals and buffered online streaming rendering the Pips a tad confusing for radio listeners, they are still very much part of the broadcasting landscape. Such is the fondness for the concept and its history, the old Six Pip master clock still enjoys pride of place at the Greenwich Observatory.

For a more scientific explanation of the Pips; and the way they were generated then and now, enjoy this clip from Inside Science on Radio 4. 

After 28 years in radio, I spoke up to the Pips for the first time at BBC Radio Nottingham. It makes one shiver. My remaining ambitions include saying 'Radio 4'; and also breaking through the security barriers at the BBC World Service just to say 'This is London' just before Lilliburlero.



A delicious short Arena TV film on the Time Signal dropping in pitch! (HT @Radiojottings)